Traditional Japanese Tattooing by Joe Spaven

Kite Daruma

We have the talented Jo Spaven of Scarlet Rose Tattoo guesting with us on the 11th and 12th November. We’re huge fans of his traditional Japanese style. We emailed him a few questions to get to know him a little better.

What is you very earliest memory of tattoos or tattooing? Was anyone in your family tattooed for instance?

I have a few early memories of tattoos. I was definitely always aware of tattoos and interested.My dad had a griffin on his forearm from when he was a teenager but it was just a blue smudge so I didn’t really think much of it. My uncle had/has two tigers on his forearm and those were well done for the time. I was fascinated by them. I thought it was so cool that he had them. Like Magic or something. My older brother was into Japanese anime and had a film called Crying Freeman. It was about a guy who was kidnapped by the Yakuza and trained to be an assassin. I must have only been about 13 when I watched that and there’s a bit when he’s forced to get his whole body tattooed with a Japanese body suit. I was blown away by that, I’ll never forget it.My dad got a tattoo of a tiger’s head when I was 17 and I told him I was going to get the same one. He laughed and said I didn’t have the guts so the next day I went and got it on my shoulder.

Can you remember the moment you thought “I wanna do this”, or “this is something I can do”?

I always wanted to tattoo but the guy I was getting them from pretty much told me to fuck off whenever I asked him about learning. I get why now, it shouldn’t just fall into your lap. I put it to the back of my mind for five years then when I’d had enough of my same shit different day office job I decided it was time to make it happen. That was 8 years ago.

Do you work on an hourly rate or fixed prices?

I charge by the piece for small stuff (hand sized) and by the hour for session work –  sleeves back pieces that kind of stuff. I find that works out for the best. I do a day rate for people who can really sit well. We can get a lot done in a day session. I’m keen to finish big pieces and customers get to save some money they way, everybody wins.

How do you tend to work? Do you draw ahead of time or freehand on the day? Do you let customers see the design before the day etc?

For Japanese stuff most of the time I draw the subject ahead of time and then always freehand the background. I need to draw on the background to get the flow with the body, it’s the only way. If customers want to see the design I get them to come in, I don’t email things out. A lot of the time, things in a design are a certain way for a reason and when it’s seen flat on an email out of context it’s hard to appreciate how it’s going to look on the body. I prefer to discuss the design face to face and hold the design on the body. Then we can discuss changes that won’t have a detrimental effect on the overall outcome.


 Do you consider yourself to have a style? If so, what is it and was it a conscious decision to focus on that, or did it just naturally happen?

The style I’m going for is traditional Japanese but it can never be completely traditional as I’m not a Japanese person. I didn’t grow up in that culture, I don’t speak the language. I didn’t do a traditional Japanese apprenticeship. I don’t want to be Japanese, I’m secure in my identity as a British person/Tattooer. I love the aesthetic of the Japanese tattoo. I believe they compliment the human form more than any other style. They also have power and impact that no other style comes close to in my opinion. If done properly the tattoo will last a lifetime. The Japanese just seem to have a way of making beautiful things, from tattoos to art to food to flower arranging the list goes on and on. They have a strong work ethic, especially when it comes to craftsmanship. This is something I can appreciate and relate to. An obsession with your work, constantly trying to get better and more efficient 🙂

Do you enjoy the social media side of tattooing or is it a necessary chore?

I really struggle with social media, posting is a necessary chore. It’s definitely an effective tool to use for getting new clients but personally I’m very private. I like looking on Instagram but I only follow tattooers so it’s like a live tattoo magazine. I hate the attention seeking and narcissism that comes along with social media. It’s encouraging people to seek validation for superficiality. That’s going to have a strange effect on our culture in the future. On the flip-side it’s great for spreading information and it stops governments and big business being able to get away with some of the corruption. I’m all for that. Social connectivity and integration are also positives that seem to come from social media.


Do you think tattoo TV shows have been good or bad for the industry?

Tattoo TV shows could be a good thing but they never seem to show anything interesting and the standard is usually not that great. It can get annoying when 5 customers a week ask you if you saw the latest episode of the one where they do cover ups. It’s hard to not sound like a grumpy bastard about it. The format/premise of that programme is fucking irritating.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of tattooing over the next 10 years or so?

I’m optimistic about tattooing over the next 10 years. People complain a lot about the state of the industry and I get it. There’s a lot people tattooing now that definitely shouldn’t be. People who are in it for the wrong reason. On the positive side though, the standard of tattooing is higher now than ever before. There’s some really exciting things happening, people really pushing the boundaries and doing incredible things. I try to focus on what I’m doing rather than worrying about all the other shops around me. If I’m doing my best then that’s all I can do. I also try to give great customer service. I think its really important to give people a great experience, from booking in the tattoo to getting it done to aftercare.

What was the first, and the last concert/gig you went to?

The first gig I went to was Oasis at Knebworth when I was 14. The last gig was Nick Cave at the Royal Albert hall. I don’t get to as many gigs as I’d like to.

What was the last film you saw at the cinema?

I saw Ben Hurr. It wasn’t great. I love the cinema.

Who is your favorite artist, not including tattooists?

Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Kyosai and Yoshitoshi are my favourite artists. I like El Greco, I have a big print of one his paintings in the shop. It’s mind blowing!


If you were sent back in time, would you be able to stamp on the head of little baby Hitler?

I definitely couldn’t kill a baby, even if I knew it was Hitler.

Was Michael right to kill Fredo?

Fredo was a liability but it’s never right to kill your brother.

Since you are coming to Birmingham, Black Sabbath, Duran Duran or Nick Drake?

Duran Duran just because I’m sure everyone says Sabbath!

Would you rather have a head the size of a tennis ball or the size of a watermelon?

Watermelon head is probably slightly less weird. Only slightly though. I’m going to say watermelon.

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Would you rather be an ugly genius or a hot moron?

I’m an ugly moron so either would be an improvement 🙂

Would you rather have sex with Megan Fox with a penis or Tom Hiddleston with a vagina?

Megan fox. No further discussion necessary

How far would you go for 1 million Instagram followers?

I’m not sure how far I’d go. Probably not that far but that’s easy to say and definitely the cool guy nonchalant answer.


If you’d like to get tattooed by Joe, you can contact him at